Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Enigma of Young Adult Ministry

United Methodists (and all mainline Protestants for that matter) everywhere lament the decline in church membership and attendance among young adults. Since "young adult ministry" is under my purview here at Trinity and since I am a young adult, this issue is especially near and dear to me. Over the last year, I have been a part of several young adult ministry workshops, read a few good books on the subject, and experimented (while failing quite often) with ministry to younger adults. So I thought I would provide some tips on young adult ministry based on what I have discovered. As usual, I welcome your input on things you've seen that have worked.

- Beliefs haven't changed much, but participation has. One of the best resources I have found in my reading on young adults and religion is Robert Wuthnow's After the Baby Boomers. Among Wuthnow's myriad of observations in this book is the notion that young adults have not changed their abstract religious beliefs much since their parents' generation. In fact, some more "fundamentalist" beliefs have even strengthened among young adults since the '60s. What has changed, however, is the young adult's willingness to participate in a religious community. Wuthnow says that young adults today are "tinkerers", experimenting with other forms of communal life (read: other religions, partying, etc.), before "settling down" once they get marred and have children (both milestones that Wuthnow reveals are happening later than they used to). For reading more specific to the ages 18-22, I recommend Souls in Transition by Christian Smith and Patricia Snell.

- So what defines a young adult? When I tell folks my responsibilities at Trinity, this is often one of the first questions they will ask me. And it is certainly a fair question. It's not as if one day one wakes up and is or is no longer a young adult. And further, what defines an activity that is specifically young adult? Again, another question for which there is no cut and dry answer. I have found that each church is different. At Trinity, we define a young adult as aged 22-35, setting age limits so as to prevent the "slippery slope principle" (I'm looking at you, dude in your forties with three kids who thinks he's still "hip"). Also, we try to focus on and celebrate specific life events, such as weddings and births, and stratify our ministry according to the life stages that correspond to these events. The natural drawback here is that not everyone falls in one of these stages at the same age, level of emotional maturity, and knowledge of faith. Last week, I attended the General Board of Discipleship's Young Adult Summit in Austin, Texas. One of my colleagues in Arizona told me that she organizes young adult activities by meeting time and not age, i.e., one group meets at 9PM and another meets at 5PM, thus separating those who have children from those who do not. I thought it was a pretty creative idea!

- "Feed them and they will come." This was the mantra of the director of young adult ministries at The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection. And it stands universally true- especially for young singles. Providing free food is not only an attractive way to bring in a person who may have a small budget and a big stomach, but it is simply the way of Christ, who was not afraid to share table fellowship with anyone.

- Don't depend on Sundays. Whatever ecclesiological or theological issue we may have with it, as a general principle, we cannot count on young adults to be present for any weekend activity, including Sunday worship. The truth is that young adults are more mobile now than they have ever been, so it is nothing for them to travel back home or to see friends over a weekend. And, as is often the case at Trinity, there is another god to rival- SEC football. But it's not that young adults don't care. They just want it all- personal time, work time, and worship time. So the most effective models of young adult ministry I have seen involve at least one weeknight meeting.

- Social media may be over-hyped. This is one old man's opinion (mine). While I have found Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, etc. to be helpful in getting the word out about events and programs, nothing beats good, old-fashioned face-to-face ministry. In fact, I think one of the responses of the church to young adults these days can be that God and the church do not want to love you at a digital arm's length. We want to meet you with love where you are most real and most vulnerable- in person.

-No one is doing young adult ministry well. This tip is both comforting and unsettling. One of my assignments when I first arrived at Trinity was to speak with those who were doing young adult ministry well and incorporate some of their ideas here. As it turns out, no minister to young adults is remotely satisfied with the job that he or she is doing. It is inherently a challenge to minister to young adults. In fact, the most encouraging thing I have heard (for my sake) was when someone told me that Church of the Resurrection, a congregation of 18,000 members compared to our 3,100, has slightly less young singles at its weekly gathering that we do. Yet, I still feel that there is so much we could be doing to minister to young adults. I have a very optimistic hope that the United Methodist Church has a strong future with my generation and the generations to follow. Even though the times may change, God's grace (the central theological tenet of our denomination) will always be the source of all good and hope in this world.